If You Must Play Chess

GM Arnold Denker published a chess book with the above title in 1947. I do have a couple of his books but that one I have never come across. Must we play chess? The thing is people mostly play chess because they feel an urge to do so. Sometimes it is for fun, sometimes to prove how good one can be, sometimes because it has become one’s occupation and sometimes because there is nothing better to do. It is usually a nice way to waste time although there is a problem. To most people, chess is enjoyable while they are winning or at least winning their fair share. Losing at chess, on the other hand, may make one rather miserable. At a professional level chess does not appear to be much fun and it seems to me the happiest chess players are those who play chess only for enjoyment.

While we are on the subject of Arnold Denker I met the man a couple of times. First time at the Canadian Open in Ottawa in 1971. It was summertime and unusually hot. The air conditioning in the playing hall had broken down and it wasn’t just hot, it was like being in an oven. I and others, all awash in sweat, kept coming out for some air. Like most players present I was in a T-shirt. My opponent had a tie on and was all buttoned up but did not sweat at all or go out for some respite. He just sat there and stared at the board. He was an expert player tough to beat and had earned a reputation of being a cement artist due to his preference for blockaded positions. On the outside I mentioned the fact that my opponent does not sweat even in those extra hot conditions and someone told me: “You can’t trust a man who doesn’t sweat!” In the end I did manage to win the game although by a mere hair breadth.

While outside I kept running into legendary Arnold Denker. We spoke and he asked me where I was from etc. I mentioned the article I had read “Can a Dope Become a Denker?” He looked at me and said I was too young to remember that. In a way he was right, I read that old article a couple of years prior to our conversation.

There was another dimension to that. I always looked younger than I was. Way back while we lived and worked in Sweden my co-workers used to send me to fetch alcohol from a nearby liqueur store and invariably I had to show some identification to prove I was of age even though I was in my mid-twenties.

In 1974 I ran into Denker again at Medellin Chess Olympiad where only women teams competed. I was the captain of the Canadian ladies and Denker had the same role with the American team. GM Pal Benko led the Estados Unidos do Brasil, Portisch, not Lajos but his lookalike brother IM Ferenz Portisch, captained Hungary. Soviet Union was there with GM Aivar Gisplis and an oldie but goodie Aleksandr Konstantinopolsky. Yugoslavia was led by IM Rudolf Maric and a retired general, Bulgaria had with them well known masters Tsvetkov and Vladilen Popov, Holland’s captain was van Sheltinga. etc., and so on. But all that stuff should be matter for another article.

Denker and I spoke a few times and I mostly listened to his interesting ideas about chess and life. We traveled with our wives and some others to some local places of interest. Strangely, I do not remember much if anything of that trip any more except for our conversation.

Arnold told me he was a very, very rich man. “But”, he continued, “what good is all that money if you can’t get it.” In the context of this discussion “it” meant good food, luxuries and other products or services as he felt the World economy was soon to take a nose dive causing severe shortages. Actually, it turns out he may have been right after all as there are, in my humble opinion, many signs that a general economic break down is imminent and of course there has been a slow decline since our conversation as well. Mostly it is visible in the worsening of the quality of products and the decrease of the value of money.

Below we have: Cuatro Americanos del Norte – Three Canadians and One American.

Medellin, Colombia 1974 – Bernard, Arnold, Michel and Vojin. Photo: Smilja Vujosevic.

Denker also mentioned that at some point in the past when he was on the verge of really doing something great in chess, while being at the peak of his chess powers, he decided to make some money and went into business. Chess had to wait for a long time while “some money” turned into oodles of cash. This New Yorker apparently did rather well in business. Still, his wife Nina told us she felt Arnold regretted his decision to go into business and abandon chess. He in retrospect, she felt, was not happy about that decision. The Americans have a saying: “When in command, command!” And I guess about chess we can say: “If you must play chess, play chess!”

I have never been in the same league with the Denkers of this World, I am closer to the chess dopes I suppose. Many years ago I too made a similar decision and neglected and postponed playing chess. It is a moot point if that was a correct decision or not but probably it was. Mind you I don’t have Denker style piles of moolah. Today, if I had to give advice to young people I would recommend they all play chess but not for living. In my view, and I know I am not alone in this, what future there may have been in chess as a profession has been greatly influenced by computers or more precisely by chess software. I think somewhat negatively. So in conclusion: play chess if you must do so.

Vojin Vujosevic.